Community Outreach: Talking about the animals

Many of us that work in biomedical research often are confronted with the dreaded question: “What do you do for a living?” The anxiety of the inevitable conversation about animal research can be palpable. One may ask, “Do I tell them the truth and get into a debate about the ethics of animal research? Or do I tell them that I am an accountant, thus avoiding any further conversation about my career?” Although distorting the truth works, but it does a great disservice to all those involved. How will people really understand animal research unless accurate, balanced information is provided? Historically, the majority of the information available is from science journals or biased animal rights groups. As a result, the bulk of the information is skewed to paint animal research as a vile, unethical institution that cares little about the animals. On the other hand, science journals describe the science, written for scientists. How does the lay person get that accurate information? That accurate information comes from you, the one that works in the industry.

It is important to note that I do not speak for all individuals in this field, but the sentiment behind my words is shared by the vast majority. Those of us that have chosen to work in this field have done so for very specific reasons:  Some of us do it to be a part of human and/or animal medical advances; others do it because they feel passionate about animal welfare and, of course, there will always be a few people who do it solely because they like having a steady job with a steady paycheck. Fortunately, the vast majority of people in the industry do not subscribe to the latter reason.

The fact that many people disapprove of animal research, but nearly all benefit from it, indicates that most people do not truly understand how biomedical research works. From food and drug production to vaccines, surgical and disease treatments, humans have benefited from animal research for hundreds of years. The sheer shock that the public has in reaction to animal research stories indicates that more education is needed. For example, the A.L.S. ice bucket challenge was all the rage last year, yet some people complained they did not want their charitable dollars to go towards animal research. The fact that some people did not know that all medical testing and treatments have or will go through animal testing before use in humans demonstrates the lack of education regarding the system. It is now time to explain it. When it comes to public opinion it is important to understand that people’s perception of complicated and controversial subjects is dramatically affected by the available information to which they are exposed. We can thank the biased animal rights groups for providing the bulk of the misinformation about research that exists today. They have had years to twist the truth and present their information in a way that immediately causes negative emotional responses in those that are subjected to this information. That is the same stance those of us in research must take. We must talk about what we do, but it should be made personal. This is the only way the lay person will be able to relate, at the personal level.

When I think of a personal story that describes the environment of research as well as the people and animals, I think of Duncan. Duncan was a chimpanzee I had the honor to know while working as a veterinary technician. Since he didn’t have a family group, he had to be housed singly, along with three other lone males. We were tasked to give them a little extra attention. Although I spent time with all of the males, Duncan was, by far, my favorite. I spent many hours over the years sitting next to his enclosure and talking to him. Of course, he would nod and grunt at me, not allowing me to feel too crazy speaking to an animal. One day, Duncan became sick. He had saculitis (inflammation of his air sacs) that was not responding to treatment.   After weeks of diligent care, Duncan succumbed to his disease. I was holding him and petting him the day he passed. As he lay breathing his last breath, I looked around me. All I saw was a family crying over the loss of a member. From care techs to managers and veterinarians, we all cried together. The loss of this amazing creature shook everyone to the core. This pain can only be compared to the loss of a human loved one. I felt great comfort in knowing that we all mourned Duncan and that we, as the caregivers that did more than just feed him, we loved him.   It is with stories like this, that the true face of biomedical research can be seen, from great love and compassion. These are the stories we need to tell.

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Once an individual is empowered to speak up about research and tell their story, as I was through Duncan, the next step is to determine the outlet and the audience. Anyone can get involved with outreach; locally or nationally. Some examples are: Institute of Animal Technology (IAT), American Association for Laboratory Animal Science (AALAS), technical schools, local career days, contributions to web sites publishing articles about science and, of course, casual conversation. Please see the end of this article for links to various avenues for outreach.

Regardless of the platform for outreach, the target audience should always be considered. Formulate your discussion, lecture, presentation or article around the individual that will be receiving the information. If the bulk of your audience is not science based, avoid scientific jargon- speak in plain terms. Most importantly, explain how your work has or may improve medicine as if you are speaking to someone with no knowledge of the inner-workings of research.

Now that you have a story to tell, you may ask yourself: Why should I speak out? The answer is clear.   The people with the best knowledge of the inner workings of research are the best source of information. It is time that the research community counteracts the years animal rights groups have had to speak against research. The best way to counteract those effects is to be open about what we do and how we do it. We should inform the public by providing balanced information. Let them make their own decisions but with correct information, instead of skewed rhetoric that serves only to fuel the extreme views that all animal research is bad and managed by heartless people that do not care about animals or society. Each one of us should be proud of our careers. It is time to show your pride and tell the world what we do and why we do it. We, the research community, are in favor of ethical treatment of animals for biomedical research and would prefer a world where disease did not need to be studied. We would also prefer a world where there was effective and appropriate alternatives for animal research, however, none are currently available or reliable to use for all research. Until that day comes, we will continue to provide the best care we can- not only because it is the law but because it is the right thing to do.

James Champion

Speaking of Research accepts guest posts from researchers, technicians, veterinarians, and those involved in outreach. If you are interested in writing a post for us, please contact us.

5 responses to “Community Outreach: Talking about the animals

  1. I was working at the AVMA convention on a PR campaign to temper some of the false claims made by animal rights activists over they years. I know Dr. Taub personally so I understand the issue for some researchers. A veterinarian stopped by to thank me for working on the campaign. It never occurred to me that it was common for people to work in research to fear reprisal or even personal harm. Just never occurred to me, even though I work in an animal shelter. This is how much people don’t know.

  2. As much as I don’t like animal testing, I know that it’s still a necessity. Thank you for caring so much about the animals that help make our lives safer.

  3. James Champion

    I have found the same thing Laurella. We care, regardless of the animal or human species. :) Thank you for sharing.

  4. Reblogged this on Excellence In Animal Science and commented:
    This is an incredible article by a fellow Speaking of Research member. This article is well spoken and an inspiration for us all.

  5. Laurella Desborough

    Many years ago I worked in a research lab as a typist (before the days of computers). The lab work was focused on studying cancer and used hamsters. The medical director and staff knew every animal by name, its relatives, etc. These animals were well cared for. When the time came that an animal was to be euthanized due to a late stage cancer, the entire lab staffers were in mourning. And these were hamsters, not dogs or primates. There is no question in my mind that individuals doing animal research do care about their animals!!! Even though I am not a researcher, I do speak up for animal research as it is very important for humans and for animals.